Russia's independent network sues for invalidation of takeover

Tuesday, April 10th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MOSCOW (AP) _ The parent company of Russia's embattled NTV television filed suit Tuesday for the invalidation of the takeover of the network by state-controlled natural gas giant Gazprom.

Two separate hearings will be held May 10 and May 17, the Interfax news agency reported, citing officials at the Moscow Arbitration Court. The announcement came a week into a standoff between journalists and Gazprom over NTV, Russia's largest independent television network.

Gazprom, which holds 46 percent of shares in NTV, purged the station's leadership in a shareholders' meeting April 3, after teaming up with U.S.-based Capital Research, which holds 4.4 percent of NTV, to get a majority stake.

However, Capital Research said that its representatives had abstained from voting in the meeting, though they accepted its results. Gazprom's media arm has said it doesn't matter whether Capital voted, and that it just needed to have representatives present to make the meeting valid.

The Media-Most holding, which includes NTV, however, filed two suits at the Moscow court on Tuesday: one to declare the shareholders' meeting illegal, and one to invalidate the replacement of the station's leadership, according to Media-Most lawyer Alexander Polozok.

NTV journalists have refused to work for the new management until the takeover is confirmed by a high court. NTV is Russia's only nationwide network that is not controlled by the state, and journalists say that the takeover was ordered by the Kremlin to silence criticism of human rights abuses, the war in Chechnya and corruption.

But Gazprom, which is a major investor in and creditor to NTV, insists it was only trying to protect its investment in the financially troubled network.

President Vladimir Putin had kept silent as the conflict unfolded. When he first spoke on the subject Tuesday, he portrayed the conflict as a financial dispute that should be settled in court.

``We must distinguish between an economic dispute and the problems of the freedom of speech, while upholding property rights,'' Putin said.

Meanwhile, Gazprom officials criticized U.S. media mogul Ted Turner - who has said he would buy NTV shares from its founder Vladimir Gusinsky - for refusing to back Gazprom in its conflict with the journalists.

``If Mr. Turner is interested in business, he ought to have spoken up in the defense of the shareholders and their involuntary conflict with the staff,'' the Gazprom-appointed chairman of NTV, Alfred Kokh, was quoted as saying by Interfax.

Turner has urged NTV journalists to remain calm and keep the conflict from escalating while he works on a deal with Gusinsky, who is under house arrest in Spain on Russian fraud charges he calls politically driven.